Q&A: Ice master Dan Craig on his days perfecting the rink for Gretzky’s Oilers

Dan Craig walks through the stands at Gillette Stadium ahead of the 2016 Winter Classic. (Steven Senne/AP)

TORONTO — There’s one man who knew his way around NHL ice better than anybody that came before him, and likely anyone that’ll come after. The record books make clear Wayne Gretzky’s hold on that distinction. But there’s one man who knows the ice itself even better still.

For more than 20 years, Dan Craig’s been the one the NHL trusts with perfecting its sheets. The longtime ice master has been perfecting the craft since he was 26 years old, his work eventually taking him into the lead role getting the makeshift rinks ready for the league’s past 20-plus outdoor games.

But in between working as a zamboni driver in his hometown of Jasper, Alta., and leading the effort to transform stadiums and ballparks into NHL rinks, the game’s best on the ice and the game’s best ice-maker were in fact working in tandem.

Craig’s first run-in with NHL action came when he tended to the ice at Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum, then the site of Gretzky’s last go-round with the Oilers before a trade sent him south to Los Angeles soon after. He remembers fondly those early mornings working away at the Coliseum with the former Edmonton greats milling about.

“We didn’t go out of our way to search out the players and talk to the players, but there were a lot of times that we were still working on the ice and Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson, a couple of guys would come out onto the bench, have a cup of coffee, and be more than willing to stop and talk to us,” Craig says.

“We’d pick their brains a little bit about what happened the night before or the game before, their road trips and what they encountered on the road, to make sure we didn’t fall into any habits that would be detrimental to the game.”

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More important to him and his team, though, were the players’ thoughts on the quality of the Coliseum ice.

“We always got great compliments from road teams coming into our building — it was a source of pride for the whole group,” he recalls. “We had eight building tenants that worked on the ice, everybody had a program that they had to work on every day back in ’97, and that’s what I brought forward with the National Hockey League and our gameday program.”

The names adorning the jerseys that would fly around the ice after Craig and Co. finished up served as a stark reminder of the stakes at play — a lesson that hasn’t left Craig all these years later.

“Talking to a player like Paul Coffey, once in a while Esa Tikkanen would give his two cents’ worth, you knew that you were working with the elite,” he says. “You knew every day that when you came to work, that you better be putting your best step forward because you were with the best players in the world.”

Since getting called up to be the league’s lead ice master in ’97, Craig’s been a stalwart for the annual outdoor games, touching down in each locale and ensuring all is perfect when the game’s best take the rink. He caught up with Sportsnet to discuss his love of ice growing up, passing the torch to his son Mike, and the upcoming Stadium Series tilt in Colorado on Feb. 15.

Note: This article has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Sportsnet: What was your relationship with hockey growing up? Tell us about some of your earliest memories of the game.

Dan Craig: Oh my goodness, that’s way back. I grew up in Jasper, Alberta, and (Jasper Arena) was the first rink that I worked at. I worked at that rink in Grade 12, and from there I went out to British Columbia for a couple of years, and then ended up in Northern Alberta for eight years taking care of a rink and building a new rink. And from there I ended up with the Edmonton Oilers at Northlands Park.

SN: How did you first get involved in working on ice during those early years in Jasper, kicking this all off?

Craig: I was 16 at the time. And even before that, just like anybody else, I was a rink rat. I just had some really good people to work with, and the Edmonton Oilers came to the rink a couple of times back in the WHA days. From there, in Northern Alberta, we had a really good senior hockey team up there that I worked with. And it just kind of took off from there. I ended up in Edmonton, I made connections with the Edmonton Oilers and Glen Sather and the group, and everything just moved forward.

From there, Brian Burke came from the National Hockey League and we set up a program. That was in ’97, so I’d say it’s been a long journey, that is for sure.

SN: Tell us about what your role with the league fully entails now and how that role’s changed over the years.

Craig: The role itself hasn’t changed but it’s all-encompassing — from the day that I started, we’re talking over 20 years ago, now it’s the whole entire field of play, different elements within the locker room, different elements that are on hockey operations and gameday operations. We’re more in tune with the engineering departments for every building now. But it’s still the same — we’re monitoring those gameday operations every day.

Mike (Craig) and Derek (King) have been really the new voice, the new focus. A lot of the building operations people, they’re coming up and they’re of a younger generation than myself. The guys that I grew up with when I came up in the league, they’re basically on the retirement side moving out. So we’re really trying to have Mike and Derek step forward and work with the new engineering groups and new personnel in the new buildings that are coming online.

Post-game fireworks light up the sky above Mosaic Stadium after the NHL Heritage Classic outdoor hockey game in overtime. (Matt Smith/CP)

SN: You mentioned your son Mike, and also Derek. Tell us about their roles on the team and how you three work together.

Craig: Whenever there’s anything on a gameday situation that they feel needs to be addressed, they send us video clips of what we need to take a look at, whether it’s ice conditions itself or boards and glass or gates and those types of things. So, we’re constantly communicating with each other — we’re very rarely in the same city, same building together. I’m fortunate to be assisting on the setup of this outdoor game for the Stadium Series. The last one, the Winter Classic, I was there to assist setting up with Derek on his crew. So the transition has been very smooth with them taking over the lead roles on all the outdoor games and special events.

SN: You’re in a unique situation teaming up with your son — what does it mean to you to share this with him and have that connection?

Craig: Ask any parent, you’re always proud that your children are successful, it doesn’t matter what line of work they’re in. Mike played junior hockey out in British Columbia and from there he ended up taking a recreation management course in Southern Alberta. When it came time to open up a building out in lower mainland British Columbia, he jumped on that chance. He worked really hard, came and worked a couple events with me — at the Winter Olympics in 2002, we did games over in Japan together. His work was really well-noted with Colin Campbell and his group, so when it came time to bring someone else online, Colin Campbell presented an opportunity to Mike, he accepted it, and it’s worked out really well for everybody.

SN: When you do get the chance to work on the same event or in the same building, what’s that experience like working alongside your son?

Craig: You know, we have a great father-son relationship, but we also have a great working relationship. He’ll see something and he’ll come to me and ask me advice, because he is the lead on this event. My position now, especially on the outdoor games, is to advise from past events that I’ve done — to let the young guys get out there and haul the big pipes around and move the heavy snow.

SN: Obviously this is something you care deeply about — it’s clear why it is so important to the game, but in your words, tell us about how important the work you guys do is to allowing the game to be what it is.

Craig: Well, it’s super important, and it’s more in the details — taking care of details every day. When you are dealing with the best players in the world, and the best league in the world, you always need to be able to step up and take care of things that need to be taken care of every day.

SN: What would you say are all the factors you need to get that best-case scenario, perfect ice for an outdoor event?

Craig: If you have about three hours then we can go through them — I mean, we have our basic program that we have for game-day events, because whether you’re dealing with New York or you’re dealing with Florida or you’re dealing with Phoenix, you have different scenarios, different weather. So every building has its own unique balance that we have to take into consideration. And that’s what we do, and we’ve been doing it successfully here for quite a few years now.

SN: Two of the three outdoor games this season are in the books, the Stadium Series game in Colorado is coming up. How do you feel everything went on the last two?

Craig: We got major compliments for Regina — the big challenge was in Dallas, when we had the big rainstorm go through there. But it’s why we put our crew together the way that we do. They stepped up and made sure that it worked the way that it was supposed to, and here we are. Last night we got six inches of snow and now it’s going to be bitterly cold here in the next couple of days, putting everything together. But again, that’s why we put together the crew that we do.

Workers prepare ahead of the 2019 Winter Classic between the Penguins and Flyers in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP)

SN: When you look back to the first outdoor game you ever worked on, what memories stand out most to you?

Craig: That’s the greatest part — every event has its challenge. I think I’m on No. 27 or 28 outdoor games right now. And every single one is unique. I don’t think we’ve ever had one that went absolutely perfect for us — you just learn to adapt as you go, you make notes, and you try to figure out what not to do next time and what things we can do better as we move along.

SN: It’s obviously been a huge hit from the fan perspective, creating these marquee events all over the continent. What does it mean to you to be helping provide that thrill for the fans, and ensuring they get good ice and a good game?

Craig: That point is never lost on us, for sure. When we come into a building or into a city, we make sure we connect very closely not only with the local rinks but with the hotels and businesses — we hear about it from the day that we walk into the city, how excited everybody is. It’s never lost on us — and it’s not only the adults but the children. When you see the children on game day and how excited they are, those are the things that you live for.

SN: What do you think about the importance of highlighting outdoor hockey in general, and what it means for the game?

Craig: You look at it from the time that we started and the trickle-down on outdoor games that are documented, and it’s amazing. It’s all over the world — we’re not just talking North America, we’re talking over in Europe, in Russia, all the outdoor games that have taken place at some point. I think that’s a major accomplishment for the hockey world itself, really bringing our hockey back to grassroots. That’s the main focus for us, to make sure that’s always maintained.

SN: Looking back over all the events you’ve worked, what stands out as the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your time doing this so far?

Craig: Every one that we do is a different challenge — sometimes we get sun, which is a major challenge, other times we’ll get overcast, which is absolutely perfect for us, and then all of a sudden it’ll start to rain, and then we’ve got to deal with that. And then it’ll get bitterly cold, and the ice gets really chippy and chunky. So, there’s a lot of things — every single one that we do, we have to pay attention to all the small details because as we’ve always said, we do have the best players in the world and this is not an exhibition game.

This is two points on the table, and everyone is expecting us to be the best.

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